What’s your favorite science fiction use of nanotechnology? Are you a fan of the Terminator, or the Borg from Star Trek, that imitate humans or assimilate them? Or are you fascinated by the replicators in Stargate:SG1, which can self-assemble, self-replicate and take the form of anything from space ships and buildings, to machinery, to humanoid bodies?
Whatever you find most interesting, the constant is that nanotechnology is one of our favorite sci-fi technologies. What’s even cooler is that, like many technologies, nanotech is quickly becoming more “science” and less “fiction.” While we’re not at the point of humanoid replicators or self-assembling vehicles just yet, there are a lot of potential application for nanotechnology to improve some of the most ambitious human endeavours—such as space exploration.
Technology at the Nanoscale
What is nanotech exactly? Short answer, it’s technology that operates at the nanoscale. One nanometer (nm) is measured at one billionth (10-9) of a meter, and the convention is to assign the term “nanotechnology” to technology that operates on the scale of 1 to 100 nm. The 1 nm bottom limit is due to the size of atoms, which nanotech needs to manipulate, while the upper limit is largely arbitrary as the size where nanoscale phenomena become apparent and useable by a nano device.
Nanotechnology features two primary approaches, which are “bottom up” where materials or devices are self-assembled from molecular components, and “top down” where nanoscale objects are constructed by micro-scale and macro-scale devices. Both methods show potential for the development of future nanomaterials and nanodevices capable of exhibiting specific properties or being programmed to perform tasks and operate autonomously.
With the potential inherent in nanotechnology, it’s easy to see why nanoengineering and nanotechnology research are booming, and a particular focus is on exploring space: how to get there, how to protect space travellers, and where they will live when they arrive on distant planets.